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Orangutans Learning To Play Xbox To Fight Boredom In Zoo

Researchers say they hope to develop games that the primates can play with humans.

04/02/2016 7:23 AM AEDT | Updated 04/02/2016 7:23 AM AEDT
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Malu, a 12-year-old orangutan at the Melbourne Zoo, is seen testing out a video game that's projected into his enclosure with an Xbox Kinect.

There’s now one less divide between humans and orangutans.

One of mankind’s closest relatives is learning how to play Xbox video games thanks to researchers who hope the interactive technology will boost the animals' minds, spirits and social interactions while in captivity.

Malu, a 12-year-old male at Australia's Melbourne Zoo, became one of the first testers this week after introduced to a custom-made Xbox Kinect game that uses motion sensors for control, researchers announced Monday.

In photos and video taken by the University of Melbourne's Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces, Malu is seen tapping and brushing lights projected onto his enclosure’s floor, causing various responses.

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An interactive red light is seen projected into the orangutans' enclosure at the Melbourne Zoo in Australia.

"Spying the projected red dot moving on the floor he immediately went over to it and kissed it. The dot duly exploded and when it reappeared he kissed it again, suggesting the orangutans are indeed keen to use more than their hands to interact," researchers stated in a Microsoft Centre release.

He’s also seen exploring the game’s abilities by bringing in items like straw and placing the objects over the game's projection, seemingly to test its reaction.

Right now the game is relatively simple, but researchers say they hope they’ll get to a level where the primates can play with humans -- like guests at the zoo. They also would like to see painting applications and picture galleries designed specifically for orangutans.

Researchers say this is the first project of its kind in the world. 

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After dumping straw over the projected screen, Malu appears to examine the lights and warped images.

“It is well-recognized that orangutans, and great apes in general, require considerable enrichment including problem-solving tasks designed to challenge their highly evolved cognitive skills," Dr. Marcus Carter, a research fellow with the program, said in the release.

Though the idea may sound like it's purely fun and games, Zoos Victoria’s animal welfare specialist Sally Sherwen stressed that these highly intelligent animals, which share 97 percent of our DNA, need constant stimulation.

Being stuck inside of a man-made confine, where there are no predators, and food and habitat are provided, can understandably get quite boring. 

“In a zoo environment, all of these challenges are overcome for them,” Sherwen said in the release. “So zoos need to find other ways to provide animals with mental challenges and puzzles.”

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Researchers stress that the highly intelligent animals need mental stimulation, especially when residing in man-made enclosures.

Seeing orangutans playing video games isn't entirely new.

The animals have been spotted playing computer games at various zoos in the U.S., including the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and Atlanta Zoo, as The Associated Press previously reported.

At the Atlanta Zoo, guests watched the primates match pictures and draw using a stationary touch-screen monitor built into a tree.

In the past, orangutans at Melbourne’s zoo have been given tablets and other touch-screen devices to use, the Microsoft Centre release said. 

The problem there, however, was the animals’ destructive strength and curiosity. So that the devices weren’t damaged or destroyed, they had to be held by a human, resulting in a number of limitations, researchers said.

“They enjoyed using the tablet but we wanted to give them something more, something they can use when they choose to,” Sherwen said.

“We think that by providing new experiences and promoting positive behaviors, this form of digital enrichment may have the potential to significantly improve their welfare. The findings from this research will be applied to other animals in zoos around the world,” she said.

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